The New England Patriots won their eighth game of the 2018 season with a 27-13 road victory last Sunday at the New York Jets. New England has once again taken control of the AFC East and also set themselves up to finish with a record of .500 or better for the 18th straight season, second in NFL history to the 21 straight seasons by the Tom Landry Era Dallas Cowboys (1965-85).
The Patriots outscored the Jets 17-3 in the second half after a tough first half saw the two teams knotted at ten apiece. New England used ten plays of 20 or more yards on Sunday including two 30+ yard rushes by rookie Sony Michel.
Michel and James White played a key role in the victory combing for 206 yards rushing on 30 carries (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman both catching touchdown passes from Tom Brady, Brady spread the ball around to eight different receivers and threw for 283 yards against New York.
While the Jets were hardly a juggernaut on either side of the football, they were at home and had two weeks to prepare for their division rival. The Patriots face a much tougher test on Sunday as they host the Minnesota Vikings. It is just the fifth time that the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady Patriots face the Vikings.
The Patriots are 4-0 in their last four meetings against the Vikings. The Patriots won at home 24-17 in 2002, went to the Metrodome in 2006 for a 31-7 thrashing of the Vikings, defeated Minnesota 28-18 on Halloween 2010, and in 2014 defeated Mike Zimmer and the Matt Cassel led Vikings 30-7 early in the 2014 season.
This week’s game will be broadcast by FOX and can be seen locally on WFXT Channel 25 in the greater Boston area and on WNAC Fox Providence Channel 64 in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. Joe Buck will handle play-by-play duties with Troy Aikman as the color analyst. Erin Andrews will work from the sidelines.
Sunday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on ESPN Radio. Jason Benetti will call the game with Patriots-hater and former Indianapolis Colts executive Bill Polian providing his usual biased analysis. Jeff Darlington will report form the sidelines.
Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and talk radio star Scott Zolak adding his brutally honest color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The victory over the Jets was the fifth time in 2018 that the New England defense held an opponent to 20 or fewer points–all five of those games being wins for the Patriots. This week they have the challenge of Minnesota offensive coordinator John DeFilippo (part of that Philadelphia Eagles offensive brain trust from the Super Bowl last year) and an offense that racked-up over 400 yards of offense against the Green Bay Packers last week.
At one point the New England defense was ninth in points allowed and 16th in yards allowed. The unit has dropped back down to 12th in points allowed and 22nd in yards allowed. The true defensive problem in New England is clear on third down as they are ranked 26th in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 43.1% of the time (62 of 144).
How do the Patriots plan to continue their defensive momentum against the explosive offense of the Minnesota Vikings?
PRESS AND PRESSURE:
For any team facing the Minnesota Vikings offense there is one position group that keeps the opposing defensive coordinators up at night: the wide receivers. Adam Thielen has meshed seamlessly with new quarterback Kirk Cousins in 2018 and has 93 receptions for 1,138 yards and eight touchdowns in just 11 games.
Thielen was a local kid undrafted out of Minnesota State who carved out a role on special teams his first two seasons in the NFL with the Vikings. In 2016 he established himself as a starter and exploded onto the scene as a Pro Bowl receiver last year with 91 catches for 1,276 yards. Despite his production, the NFL undervalues slot receivers and in 2017 the Vikings were able to sign Thielen to a ridiculously cheap three-year, $17 million contract extension.
Opposite Thielen is Stefon Diggs, a fifth-round draft pick in 2015 from Maryland. Diggs earned a starting role as a rookie in 2015 and while he has yet to top 1,000 yards in a season, his ability outside the numbers makes him as valuable–if not more so–than Thielen who does much of his work in the slot. Minnesota rewarded Diggs with a five-year, $81 million contract this summer.
One of the most dangerous duos in the NFL, the Vikings duo at wide receiver present a huge test to the New England secondary. Covering this duo is difficult and Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson, Keion Crossen or Duke Dawson will have their hands-full on Sunday afternoon.
Diggs will likely see a lot of Gilmore on the outside, but with Diggs’ hamstring injury the Patriots may mix things up in coverage. The big question is how to defend Thielen. Believe it or not, this is a week the Patriots will miss the much-maligned Eric Rowe. Rowe could slide outside and let McCourty play out of the slot. Look for New England to try either Jackson or Crossen on the outside to match-up Laquon Treadwell to get McCourty on the dangerous slot receiver.
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The best way to help the secondary is in the pass rush. Defensive end Trey Flowers missing practice on Friday was a scare but fortunately it was not injury related. Flowers was injured in week two (he played just seven snaps) and missed week three’s “AFC Championship Rematch” against Jacksonville.
Not surprisingly, without their defensive difference-maker up front the Patriots allowed 57 points and lost those two games. Tennessee neutralized Flowers (his only game without a quarterback pressure) finding the versatile defensive lineman and rolling extra blockers his way to limit his impact.
Flowers needs help in the pass rush and often it has not been present. Lawrence Guy has had to play inside on running downs due to Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton struggling. Adam Butler has struggled to get consistent pressure inside and Deatrich Wise, John Simon, Adrian Clayborn, Keionta Davis and Derek Rivers (in limited action) have failed to make an impact in the pass rush.
New England needs Flowers to step-up and someone from that muddled group of ineffective pass rushers against Minnesota. Right tackle is a mess with both Rashod Hill and rookie Brian O’Neill struggling. Riley Reiff is solid on the left side, but guards Tom Compton and Mike Remmers are just adequate and second-year center Pat Elflein is athletic but inconsistent.
The best pass defense for the Patriots may be getting to Kirk Cousins. Cousins is not a scrambler and has been sacked 28 times in 11 games. Making Cousins uncomfortable leads to turnovers and when the Vikings turn the ball over one time or fewer, they are 4-1-1. When they turn the ball over two or more times they are 2-3.
There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do against Minnesota this week at home:
The Minnesota Vikings have struggled on the offensive line allowing 28 sacks in 11 games. However, pass blocking is just one issue which has plagued this group–they have struggled mightily to make space in the running game for running backs Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook.
The Vikings are 30th in the NFL in rushing yards with just 938 yards in 11 games and are also 30th in average yards per rush at just 3.9 yards per attempt. The Vikings roll as their offensive line and running game rolls. They are 5-0 when they rush for 88 yards or more so far in 2018. They are 1-4-1 when they are held under 88 yards on the ground.
New England has allowed more than 100 yards rushing six times in 2018–they are 3-3 in those games. Digging deeper, they have allowed 150 or more yards rushing in all three of their losses. To put that another way, if the Patriots hold their opponents under 150 yards rushing, they are 8-0.
Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown both had high expectations entering 2018 and both are struggling to stop the run. Brown is playing just 41.3% of the snaps on defense while Shelton has played just 37.6% of the defensive snaps. Shelton has not played 40% of the snaps in a game since week six.
Lawrence Guy has been the anchor in the middle of the defensive line and as such he has consistently been getting close to 50% or more of the snaps on defense. Second-year defensive tackle Adam Butler has shown improvement against the run and has been getting more opportunities on running downs than in the past.
The Vikings’ offensive line has been unable to make space in the running game in 2018. The loss of Nick Easton to injury and Joe Berger to retirement has created a mess on the line. Right tackle was a mess coming into the season with Mike Remmers forced to move inside to guard. Both career back-up Rashod Hill and rookie Brian O’Neill are struggling at right tackle.
Veteran Riley Reiff is a solid left tackle, but guards Tom Compton is just adequate as a run-blocker and veteran Mike Remmers has been plagued by nagging injuries all season. Second-year center Pat Elflein is athletic and flashes potential but he remains inconsistent as a blocker.
If the New England defensive line can keep the Vikings from reaching the second-level in the running game, the Patriots should be able to slow Cook and Murray and the Vikings rushing game. Making the Vikings one-dimensional on offense should allow the pass rush to take advantage of Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower as blitzers and help the New England secondary.
The game plan on defense is simple for the Patriots: put their veteran cornerbacks on the dynamic duo of wide receivers and pressure Cousins. Then, make plays in the run defense to keep Minnesota one-dimensional.
The question is whether they Patriots’ defense can come out and execute this plan and win the match-ups against this NFC North powerhouse.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01